We’ll return to the Pearl Harbor story in a bit. I love researching, and often find answers quickly to some questions, but the lead up to Pearl and resulting Blame Game have lead me down a bit of a rabbit hole and I’m really deep in. I haven’t forgotten, but today, I’m starting the new year on the lost submarines of the US Navy and some unique stories. I still will follow and bring to light more about Flier, but she had a number of remarkable sisters, whose stories also deserve to be told, and Pearl Harbor deserves a thorough post(s), and I have to thoroughly understand what I’m finding before I can write about it coherently, so I shall return to it soon
USS Argonaut was in a class by herself when she rolled down the ways on 10 November 1927. The largest submarine yet built by the US Navy (and still the largest non-nuclear submarine built by the USA), she was designed to lay mines and have more powerful engines. But like many good-idea-on-paper- projects, Argonaut and her sisters Narwhal and Nautilus, soon proved to be more problematic than they were worth. While the minelaying devices were “ingenious” they were also “extremely complicated”. They also took up the final two compartments of the submarine.
Diving slowly, and cumbersome underwater, Argonaut and her sisters quickly became the only submarines of their class, and the submarine designers moved on to the Cachalot class boats, and soon, the Salmon class boats, working their way to the classic Fleet style submarine which would become the workhorse of WWII.
With such difficulties, Argonaut was moved to Pearl Harbor, and carried out routine duties, patrols, and participated in the Navy games. A young officer, Richard “Dick” O’Kane came aboard in 1938 and qualified and served on Argonaut for four years. (If you’re new to submarine history, just Google his name, as well as the names USS Wahoo and USS Tang—he had an interesting career!)
At the same time, a young radioman named Walter Klock, commonly called “Bud”, was assigned to the Argonaut for his first sub assignment. Klock had a camera, and, prior to the WWII restrictions, photographed a bit of life on Argonaut, including what must have been a “Crossing of the Line” ceremony. This ceremony, which generally takes place any time a ship or sub crosses a main line, (Equator, Arctic/Antarctic circles, International Date Line, Prime Meridian, ect.) allows those men who have crossed said lines before to introduce the new guys, or “polliwogs” to it. Prior to WWII on a submarine, this ceremony could get quite…interesting…and Klock sent home the photos to prove it.
Anyone recognize your ancestor?
There were other times. Shirley Temple visited the men of Argonaut as well, and Klock wrote to his mom about the many fine dances and other things to do in Hawaii. A native Minnesotan from St. Paul, he stayed in Honolulu so long he said 60 degree Januarys were freezing him to death!
Klock eventually moved on to the S-28 and was in San Diego in November1941, but his old boat remained behind. The morning of December 7, she was on patrol near Midway Island, where she reported hearing many explosions. Fearing that the Japanese were attacking Midway in addition to Pearl, HQ ordered Argo to take a close look, where she discovered two Japanese destroyers bombing the island, but doing little else.
Argonaut, with her difficulties, was not as suited to do the same patrolling that her Fleet sisters were assigned, but the Navy had special plans for them. Shortly after Argo’s return following the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was shipped Stateside, where her minelaying equipment was removed, her troublesome engines replaced, and her new job revealed: troop transport. Her large size made her and her sisters ideal for getting troops and supplies in and out of enemy controlled areas, and her first mission was urgent. So urgent, that Argonaut had little time to drill before she, her crew, and their top secret guests headed out to sea.
On December 10, 1941, the Japanese invaded the small Makin Atoll (Now Butaritari Island) and took it over (no resistance made it easy). It would be a seaplane base, extending Japanese reach over Allied held territories, and was fortified with about 160 troops, planes, machine guns and a few ships. By August 1942, the US Navy, needing Japanese attention as splintered as possible during the initial landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, decided to send 211 Marines to Makin to destroy the fortification, take prisoners and gather intelligence. Such a surprise attack required a submarine landing and pickup and the Nautilus and Argonaut, were ready (though barely). 121 Marines boarded the Argonaut, 90 on Nautilus, and on August 8, they left Pearl heading for Makin, near (modern) Papua New Guinea.
For five days, they pushed hard without diving, trying to make the best time possible and allowing the Marines to exercise on the deck. But August 16, they sighted Makin, and at 3 am on August 17, the raid began. The men on the Argonaut couldn’t do much after the Marines headed ashore on their rubber rafts except lay low, watch, and pray. By 5:43 am they had their first message: “Everything lousy.” Four minutes later: “Situation expected to be well in hand shortly.”
Nautilus, relying an order from the Marines, asked Argonaut to fire on a ship in the lagoon, but most of the day was spent just watching.
By 7 pm, the Marines were straggling back. Initial information was good: they’d managed to destroy move of the Japanese garrison, and kill the vast majority of the soldiers stationed there. But in other ways, it was a failure: no POWs and little intelligence. Several boats were reported having trouble working against the waves to get out to the Argonaut and Nautilus, and the submarines decided to stay on station another day looking for stragglers. The next night, another four rubber boats, and a native boat with more Marines onboard came alongside. Some of these Marines were seriously wounded and transferred to the Nautilus who, for this patrol only, had a doctor onboard. Everyone arrived back in Pearl on 26 August. Argonaut’s hasty prep work, however, had shown. Between her arrival home and the 31st of August, her CO submitted over 58 work items that needed attention, including a serious leak from a fuel oil tank which would requite a 6-7 week repair.
After repairs, she was sent to Brisbane, Australia, and from there she went out on her third war patrol on 2 January, 1943. Before leaving Pearl, however, Argonaut’s crew decided to leave her bell behind, a move that would have interesting implications.
On 10 January 1943, Argonaut was in the Bismark Sea, and attacked five freighters and their escorts. An American Army plane spotted her attack, and saw one of the escorting destroyers take a direct hit from Argo’s torpedoes. The destroyers went on the offensive, launching a depth charge attack which apparently, destroyed Argonaut. This attack perhaps broke her back (or rather, broke her keel, breaking her into two or more pieces. ) forcing Argo’s nose to break the surface for a moment. The destroyers continued to fire at her until she slipped beneath the waves, never to surface again. All 102 of her crew remain with her.
The Army plane, returning to his station, reported what he had seen, and also reported her loss, leading to Argo’s loss being reported relatively quickly by 26 February. Due to his report, she was credited with damaging that destroyer, but after the war this score was revoked, since none of the ships in the convoy reported being damaged on 10 January. It’s possible the torpedo was a premature explosion, which plagued many sub commanders early in the war.
Klock heard about the loss of his old boat while serving on his new one, Flier, in New London. Since censorship of the war forbade all mentions of ship names, he normally could not tell his mother what had happened, but fate intervened. A friend of his was going on leave back home, and Klock wrote a letter to his mother in plain language, hoping his friend could sneak it out and deposit it in the civilian post without the censors intervening. It must have worked, for found among Mrs. Violet Klock’s papers was the following letter dated Easter, 1943: (Excerpt of full letter)
A friend of mine is flying out of the war zone tomorrow so I’m going to take a chance on getting this letter out. Don’t repeat any of this or my name will be mud. We are doing okay out here-the job gets rather tedious at times, but we are winning. We sank four ships on our last two runs out. We had one close call but nothing to become alarmed about. That made a total of six sunk for this particular ship. Not bad-huh?
There isn’t much chance of me returning to the states for quite a while as we are operating out of a pretty hot spot. But don’t worry about me—submarines are the safest thing to be on-we’ve only lost two or three. Incidentally, the one I as on for so long in Honolulu, the Argonaut got sunk. She sunk [sic] several ships first though so paid her way fully.
The raid on Makin had unusual ramifications: the Japanese returned and REINFORCED the island with nearly four times the original troops the Raiders faced, forcing the Marines to return in November 1943 and thoroughly clean the place out. The graves of the 18 Marines confirmed dead were found as well as the grave of one of the 12 Marines formerly listed as MIA. Of the other 11, they were never located. Eventually, records were found that show at least nine were captured by the Japanese and executed on Kwajalein Atoll. The fate of the other two remains unknown.
Nearly 20 months after Argonaut’s loss, a Submarine Memorial Chapel was built and dedicated on the Submarine Base in Pearl. (The story of how that got built is another whole post) The bell hanging in her steeple comes from Argonaut, and still rings today for services. As the bell is considered the “voice” or sometimes “soul” of a boat, it’s probably one of the more touching memorials a sub could ask for.
Finally, in honor of the lost Argonaut, a new Tench-class submarine was named in her honor: USS Argonaut (II) SS-475 was commissioned on 15 January 1945, just over two years since the loss of her older sister. Argo II actually made it to the Pacific theater for one patrol, rescuing a downed American pilot and sinking a 25-ton fishing vessel with her deck guns (for which she received no JANAC credit since they apparently didn’t consider anything lighter than 500 tons as a “ship”). Argo II later served in the Atlantic during the 50’s and 60’s with the occasional Medditerranean deployment. Sold to Canada in 1968, she served them a further six years as the HMS Rainbow before being scrapped in 1977.
After the war, Argonaut (I) and her crew were assigned to the state of California for their memorial. Dedicated in 2001, the USS Argonaut and USS Grampus combined memorial stands in the National Submarine Memorial West in Seal Beach, California.
The resting place of Argonaut and her crew has yet to be found.